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The `ballymaloe cooking school cookbook' by school co-owner and Irish TV cooking show host, Darina Allen is my second volume in my search for the perfect Irish cookbook. As it turns out, this very heavy and long (639 pages) book is much, much more than a book about Irish cooking, as well it should be, since it is comparable to the Culinary Institute of America's textbook, `The New Professional Chef'. That is, it is a general textbook for essentially all styles of European and American cooking, with a tendency to include more Irish recipes than you would expect from a French or Italian cooking textbook. In fact, a quick browse reveals recipes from around the world, many with an attribution to a close Darina Allen friend, such as Marcella Hazan.
When I saw Darina Allen on the old Sara Moulton show, `Cooking Live' on the Food Network, I had no idea that her Ballymaloe Cooking School was so big and well established to support such a comprehensive volume.
Ms. Allen's general tone in this book follows much the same path as the Chez Panisse guru, Alice Waters in that it strongly emphasizes good, fresh ingredients and a philosophy to waste nothing. Even the most lowly scraps can be recycled in the compost heap or the stock pot.
Unlike Ms. Allen's `The Festive Food of Ireland', I am happy to say that these recipes give all their units in an uncluttered and familiar English system of units, such as pounds and ounces, cups, tablespoons and teaspoons. I was just a bit surprised to see Ms. Allen recommend using standard spoons out of the silverware drawer to measure for savory recipes. On one hand, this is brilliantly simple, since a standard teaspoon (5 ml) is a rounded `teaspoon' and an English tablespoon (20 ml) is a rounded soupspoon. One important difference to note here is that the English (and Canadian) tablespoon is 25% larger than the American tablespoon (15 ml).
The book covers a very broad range of subjects, featuring 24 chapters on stocks & soups; appetizers; eggs; rice, other grains, & legumes; pasta and noodles; vegetables; salads; fish & shellfish; poultry; lamb; pork & bacon; beef; variety meats; game; desserts; cheeses; cakes & cookies; breads, scones & pizzas; jams & preserves; breakfast; barbecue; finger foods; drinks; and sauces.
One of the first things that struck me about this book is that it delves into subject which few if any other cooking texts touch, such as shopping, fashion, kitchen safety, and manners at the table. Many of the book's more conventional sections are a bit off. The `cupboard basics' section violates the notion that you should never buy an ingredient unless you have definite plans to use it in a recipe in the next week. Ms. Allen's list includes things such as dried fruit, Carr's Water Biscuits, Nam Pla (fish sauce), Pesto, and Ballymaloe's own brands of Tomato Relish and Jalapeno Relish. I would make pesto myself and I don't anticipate using nam pla, harissa, tortillas, Carr water biscuits, or chorizo in the next month, and maybe not even in the next year. The same general comment can be made of the `essential kitchen equipment' list. I always go back to Madhur Jaffrey's sound advice to simply make the recipes you want and buy for only those recipes. Sooner or later, you will have built up a pantry and assembly of cooking tools to match your personal style.
I do not weigh this too heavily against Ms. Allen, as she also has great advice on what to do if your power fails on your freezer or if you plan to move and are dealing with a full freezer.
Although this is a text for training future professional chefs, many of the classic recipes are remarkably unfussy. The master recipe for chicken stock cooks for only 3-5 hours, and adds all the vegetables at the beginning of the cooking rather than waiting for the last hour. Similarly, the master recipe for the basic omelet only cites one basic kind of French omelet and leaves out at least one of the fussier steps I have heard from various sources. The recipe for scrambled eggs is also not quite as fussy as the classic French method requiring a double boiler (bain marie).
Some techniques are illustrated with a set of photographs illustrating the steps, but these tend to be small and some major techniques are not so illustrated.
True to the author's emphasis on raw materials and the fact that the school has its own farm for vegetables, eggs, and fresh herbs, the introductory paragraphs to each section are rich in advice on how to pick and use raw materials. The introduction to eggs, one of my favorite subjects, is especially good on identifying the best eggs (how long ago was it laid) for each job.
Overall, this is an excellent reference for all sorts of recipes. I happened to check out the recipe for `basic hamburgers' and found a recipe that exactly duplicated my projected improvement over Julia Child's favorite hamburger recipe. Where Miss Julia has us put sautéed garlic and onion sandwiched between two layers of ground meat, Ms. Allen recommends the sautéed savories be mixed in with the ground meat, together with egg. A surprising touch recommends we also wrap it in caul fat, but this is optional.
One thing you will find in this book that you will not find in a CIA tome is a very personable, comradely tone which almost places Ms. Allen at your right hand as you read through the recipes. That means you will have a lot more fun reading this book than you may with a CIA text.
If you are very new to cooking, I highly recommend this as a first cookbook, especially if your ancestry can be traced back to the Emerald Isle! But, this is much, much more than a cookbook of Irish recipes.